To avoid driver distraction, automakers typically disable certain infotainment functions, such as entering navigation destinations by hand, when the vehicle is in motion.
But suppliers are working on systems that give the passenger access to certain apps.
Osram GmbH, for instance, has developed an infrared sensor in the center console that can determine whether the driver or passenger is reaching for the controls.
The sensor has two light-emitting diodes, and when a hand moves toward the console, light from the LEDs bounces back to the sensor.
The sensor notes the time lag between the two reflected light beams to determine whether the hand is moving left or right.
Osram's system gives the passenger -- but not the driver -- access to Facebook, restaurant listings or perhaps text messages.
"This would allow you to unlock the potential of your [infotainment] technology and still make sure that the driver is focused on the road," said Sevugan Nagappan, Osram's marketing manager for infrared and laser products.
Harman International has a different approach: a split console screen that displays a limited number of apps on the left and a broader menu on the right.
The system is designed so the driver cannot view whatever app the passenger has activated. The passenger can surf the Internet, check weather and traffic, share content on Facebook and download maps.
Harman's split-screen system debuted on the 2014 Mercedes-Benz S class.
Panasonic Corp. is marketing another product: an app that lets passengers display infotainment features on their smartphones.
A passenger searches for a local restaurant on Google, for instance, then turn-by-turn directions are transmitted to the vehicle's navigation system. The route guidance is displayed after the driver hits an "accept" button.
Executives at Panasonic and Osram were unwilling to name the automakers with which they are working, but it seems likely that at least some of their systems will debut within three years or so.
Says Nagappan: "We are working with automakers and Tier 1 suppliers who want to use this technology."